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The blameless Ethiopians
Independent, May 2002

I came to Abyssinia looking for the old palace of the Queen of Sheba, where a thousand years later a daughter of the Prophet Muhammad took refuge. I came armed with a pair of stout histories and a promisingly thick archaeological field-guide. I needn’t have burdened myself. I know nowhere on earth to match Ethiopia. Amid the scent of green coffee beans roasted on iron griddles, through circles made in the sky by its vultures and eagles, amongst its babble of eighty indigenous languages, its mountain peaks, its dark river gorges, its remote highland plateaux, the very air carries thousands of years of history and myth as if it were yesterday’s news.

Sheba it seems was everywhere but nowhere. Munificent Queen of the South, she was the lover of Solomon for a night, known to the Arabs as Bilqis and to the Ethiopians as Makeda or the Queen of Saba. You pick up elements of her story whereever you travel in Ethiopia. At a rock basin filled with muddy water accessed by some ancient rock carved steps, from a hermit-like deacon revealing his beliefs in the shadow of a cave church, whilst peering at a mural on an island monastery or as you enter a vast monolithic underground tomb. The fact that none of these matched the dates of her royal lover, Solomon , King of Israel and Judah from 966 to 926 BC mattered not a bit.

This lack of a precise record in no way interferes with the passionate relationship of the Queen Sheba to Ethiopia. In fact it rather frees her up to spiritualise and make sacred the entire landscape. Sheba’s son by Solomon, Menelik I, is believed to have first brought the worship of the One God and the law of Moses to Ethiopia. It is Menelik I who stands as the grand patriarch of that long, long dynastic line of three thousand years of Ethiopian Emperors that only finally ended in a dark palace cellar in September 1975 when the old and revered Emperor Haillie Selassie was strangled on the orders of Colonel Mengistu. It is also Menelik I who is traditionally credited with spiriting the Ark of the Covenant out of Jerusalem. Menelik’s Ark may still rest in Aksum in the church of St Mary of Sion, guarded by a perpetually resident monk.

This Ark is inaccessible, even to the gaze of a crowned Emperor. It is kept safe within a triple veiled tent (as prescribed by Moses) and a series of seven sealed chests (as suggested by the Book of Revelations). There is however one eyewitness account from an Armenian monk. He described the original Ark in Ethiopia “as high as the knee of a man – and overlaid with gold upon its lid there are crosses of gold and five precious stones” in which are stored Moses’s two tablets bearing the ten commandments – as inscribed by the finger of God. But as the Orthodox Coptic Church of Ethiopia has at least 22,000 churches, each and every one of which contains a dedicatory Ark within its sanctuary, the possibility for confusion is large. Especially as in times of danger these Arks are spirited out of the churches.

I have followed some of the secretive tunnels that drop down from a hatch door hidden in the church floor and take you down long flights of stairs and along zig-zagging dark tunnels. Suddenly you reappear into the blinding light of a cliff face or amongst the bushes of a riverbank.

The miraculous is seldom far from the surface in Ethiopia. Last week I was talking to a man at the evening crush at the lobby bar of the Hilton hotel at Addis Adabba. His knotted tie, his Milanese suit, his Oxford accent all pinpointed him as a well connected Ethiopian naturally at home in an international environment. Yet the conviction with which he testified to the power of the ancient liturgical crosses cut through the frothy atmosphere at the bar. He had experienced it at first hand when the touch of a cross at Lalibela had cured him of years of excruciating backache.

When I finally stood face to face with the so-called palace of Sheba at Aksum it was hot, dry and exposed enough to deaden the mind. I also felt dehydrated by the previous evening which had been dominated by Tej, Ethiopian honey wine, backed up by some injudicious sampling of the local cloudy millet beer. Yet my spirit soared. The palace is overlooked by a mountain on one side and a field packed full of leaning standing-stones on the other. It is a confusing warren of courts, chambers, offices and halls. The centre of this labryinth is dominated by a raised central building where three different flights of stairs command the approaches from three different courtyards. In the legendary heyday of her wealth the Queen of Sheba’s palace stabled 520 white camels whilst 73 ships lay berthed in her harbour at Adulis awaiting her bidding. It was these ships which sailed north with a gift of 120 talents of red gold with which to gild Solomon’s temple at Jerusalem.

Aksum, now a dusty roadside town of 30,000, not that far from the disputed Eritrean border, has long since shed these days of legendary wealth. Traces remain however after the summer rainy season when the gold, silver and bronze coins of ancient Aksum are washed out of the soil. It is an illegal trade but many a young street kid keeps these relics stashed away in folded sheets of brown paper - origami with a purpose.

The empty walls amongst which I stood could never have witnessed the court of the Queen of Sheba, for they were built in the 6th century AD - some 1,500 years too late. They were however exactly the right period to have stood mute witnesses to the arrival of the Prophet Muhammad’s refugee daughter.

It was to the Christian Empire of Abyssinia that the Prophet Muhammed entrusted his own cherished daughter Rakiya and a handful of close confederates. The young Muslim community was being persecuted by the pagan aristocrats of Mecca. The Prophet advised some of the embattled faithful that “If you were to go to Abyssinia, it would be better for you until such time as God shall relieve you from your distress, for the King there will not tolerate injustice and it is a friendly country.” This proud testimony to Ethiopian hospitality has echoed down the centuries. The Prophet was not alone in his high opinion. Homer spoke of “the blameless Ethiopians”, Diodorus claimed that even the gods were “awed by their piety” while Herodotus wrote, “the Ethiopians are a mighty race who surpass in comeliness and stature all peoples and who are firm believers in God”. I wouldn’t change a word. Herodotus in particular seems to have caught both Ethiopia’s dusky nightclub allure and the exalted drum-driven dawn chants of the churches - perfectly.

The first refugees, just 12 men and 5 women, rode west out of Mecca to Jeddah and then took ship across the Red Sea to the Ethiopian port of Adulis. From there they rode into the mountains to seek refuge at the imperial capital of Aksum. The next year a second party of refugees joined them and then another until there was a village of 83 Muslim families settled at Aksum. Here they were tracked down by their Meccan pagan persecutors who sent a delegation to the Emperor to slander the Muslim refugees.

Standing amongst the ruined walls I could imagine the delegation from Mecca arriving. They would have offered a tribute of presents to the Negus, the Emperor of Abyssinia, before they sought permission to speak. Such occasions were dominated by the overpowering splendour of the Aksumite rulers. Through the eyewitness account of a Byzantine ambassador we see the Negus approaching the foreign delegation on a wheeled platform, bound round with golden leaves, and drawn by four elephants. “He wore a gold and linen head-dress, with fluttering golden streamers. His collar, armlets, and many bracelets and rings were of gold. The king’s kilt was of gold on linen; his chest was covered with straps embroidered with pearls. He held a gilded shield and lances, while around him musicians played flutes and his nobles formed an armed guard.”

The pagan embassy from Mecca accused the Muslims of wrecking the unity of their city, of blaspheming against the ancestral gods – and most tellingly of all - denying the divinity of Christ. The Negus, surrounded by his court of monk-bishops and clerics, was clearly appalled that he should be harbouring these dangerous schismatics in his land. He commanded the Muslims to explain themselves.

Ja’afar, first cousin the Prophet, stepped forward and answered, “We were folk immersed in ignorance, worshipping idols, eating carrion, given to lewdness, severing the ties of kinship, bad neighbours, the strong among us preying on the weak; thus were we till God sent to us a messenger of our own, whose lineage, honesty, trustworthiness and chastity we knew. He called us to God that we should acknowledge his Unity and worship him and turn away from the stones and idols that we and our fathers used to worship beside Him…And when persecuted and oppressed, we came forth to thy land, and chose thee above all others, and sought thy protection, and hoped we should not be troubled in thy land, O King!”.

The Negus thought awhile and then asked for an example from the Qu’ran. Ja’far chose well. He chanted Sura XIX with its beautiful revelation of the immaculate conception of Jesus: “Then we sent unto her Our Spirit and it assumed for her the likeness of a perfect man. She said: Lo! I seek refuge in the Benefecient One from thee, if thou art God-fearing. He said: I am only a messenger of thy Lord, that I may bestow on thee a faultless son. She said: How can I have a son when no mortal hath touched me, neither have I been unchaste? He said, So it will be. Thy Lord saith: it is easy for Me. And it will be that We may make him a revelation for mankind and a mercy from Us, and it is a thing ordained. And she conceived him, and she withdrew with him to a far place.”

It is said that when Ja’far came to the end of the sura that the Negus and his entire court were in tears. It was the first Christian court to hear how the Qu’ran so greatly honours the Virgin, which indeed it does in considerably greater detail than any of the Gospels. The Negus turned to the delegation from Mecca, “If you were to offer me a mountain of gold, I would not give up these people who have taken refuge with me.”

Homer was right. For his part the Prophet would also honour “the blameless Ethiopians”. He gave what he considered most precious when he prayed for God to have mercy on the soul of the Negus when that monarch died in 630. He also instructed his followers to “leave the Abyssinians in peace,” an injunction which goes a long way to explaining how the Christian faith of Abyssinia has been preserved today.

That extraordinary complex of shrines, churches, chapels and hermitages, hewn from the living rock at Lalibela, were designed as an African mirror to Jerusalem. They are one of the eight wonders of our world. That they remain an active place of pilgrimmage and prayer, of devotion and liturgy rather than an empty monumental space for tourists is a second marvel. The mutual regard, the effective tolerance between the equal sized communities of Muslims and Christians in Ethiopia, seems to lead straight back to first beginnings. When hospitality was freely offered to refugees – and which would be answered by a father’s thankful prayer.

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